A Complete Guide To What Every Single Dress Code Really Means

Leah Bourne
A Complete Guide To What Every Single Dress Code Really Means
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OK, folks, let’s take a moment to talk about dress codes. They’re not the most exciting part of getting dressed for an event—Nothing sucks the fun out of getting ready to attend a wedding quicker than some obscure dress code printed on the invitation!—but understanding them is definitely a must. No matter how many gatherings I attend, it seems like I’m always second-guessing what the terms semi-formal, business casual and cocktail attire really mean—and what, exactly, to wear to each type of event.

And while I usually subscribe to the rule that it’s always better to be overdressed than to be underdressed, it’s also super uncomfortable showing up somewhere in a gown when everyone else is wearing jeans and a tee. So, I did a little hard research on how to dress for each dress code. Frankly, whoever came up with the term dressy casual should totally be canceled. (Hello, aren’t those two opposing terms?) Alas, there are actually specific expectations behind some of the most confusing dress code suggestions—including formal dress codes and casual dress codes.

Because it’s already hard enough to shop for the perfect ensemble as it is when you do understand the attire suggestions, I went ahead and decoded some of the most common dress codes for you. (You’re welcome!) Whether your new job suggests that employees dress in business casual attire or you receive a wedding invitation that says “black tie optional” along the bottom, I’ve got you covered. I’ve even added in a few shopping picks, so if you’re already looking for the perfect ensemble, you’re set in that arena, too.

Picking out an outfit should be fun, not stressful—so go ahead and keep reading to learn how to dress for every dress code.

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Dress Code: Black Tie


The MEGA Agency.

This is crystal clear for those who prefer suiting over dresses, skirts and jumpsuits—wear a tuxedo. It’s a little more complicated when it comes to dresses, though. You can technically wear anything from a long dress to dressy separates to a formal cocktail dress.

The best way to figure out what to wear is to dress according to what you expect the host to wear. Attending a high-end wedding? Then wear a gown. If, on the other hand, you’re going to a work function that calls for a  black-tie dress code, it’s more appropriate to wear a little black dress with statement jewelry.

Foolproof Outfit: A sleek gown or a classic black tuxedo


Courtesy of Norma Kamali.

Low Back Slip Mermaid Fishtail Gown

You can’t go wrong with a stunning black gown—and I particularly love a slinky fishtail number for a bit of flare. Dress it up with classic accessories like a pair of delicate strappy heels—and you need a red lip makeup look, of course!


Dress Code: Black Tie Optional


The MEGA Agency.

This is one of the murkier dress codes. Stereotypically, it meant that men were given the option of either wearing a tuxedo or a dark suit and a tie. Of course, anyone of any gender identity can opt for a suiting or tuxedo look. Those who prefer dresses can wear anything from a long dress to a cocktail number—so long as the style is relatively conservative. This often means that longer hemlines are preferred and long slits are not. Think of it like this: You aren’t expected to look as if you’re en route to the Oscars, but you should still make an effort with formal attire.

Foolproof Outfit: An ankle-grazing dress and statement jewelry, formal jumpsuit or a dark suit


Courtesy of La Femme.

Sparkle Jumpsuit

For events that are black tie optional, wearing a more formal jumpsuit is a great option as a mix between suiting and a dress. One that’s covered in sparkles screams “formal affair.”


Dress Code: Creative Black Tie


The MEGA Agency.

Creative black tie is the dress code that allows you to have fun. Those who’d typically opt for a tuxedo, for instance, should feel free to wear a black shirt or a red bow tie—something other than the cookie-cutter penguin suit. Those who want to wear something other than a tux are similarly encouraged to take their look less seriously.

Still confused? Think of creative black tie as trendy black tie. Oftentimes, creative black tie is the expectation at theme parties with a dress code like “1920s Black Tie” or “Texas Black Tie” and in those cases, choose a dressy look that works with the theme. For instance, with a dress code that calls for Texas Black Tie, one would be dressed appropriately in a tuxedo, bolo tie and cowboy boots, or a gown and a cowboy hat.

Foolproof Outfit: A formal but-trendy gown for or a unique suiting look.


Courtesy of Zara.

Tailored Double Breasted Blazer + Full-Length Pants

If you choose to go with a unique suiting look, try playing with color! Red feels formal while still looking fun—style a pair of high-waisted trousers with the matching blazer for an all-over color look that still feels elevated.


Dress Code: Cocktail


The MEGA Agency.

For guys, this dress code calls for a dark suit with a tie. For women, cocktail attire typically means short dresses that are party-ready. When in doubt, wear a little black dress and dress it up with fun jewelry—or, if you’d rather wear color, opt for something bright and fun.

Foolproof Outfit: A little black dress or casual suiting


Courtesy of Naked Wardrobe.

Skin Halter Minidress

It’s time to pull out your favorite LBD! They’re an all-season classic for a reason—you never look too dressed up but you always look put-together.


Dress Code: Festive


The MEGA Agency.

A dress code that tends to pop up on invitations around the holidays, festive attire is similar to cocktail attire—but with a holiday bent. Try a sparkly sequin dress, a red satin skirt or a suit that features some festive colors.

Foolproof Outfit: A sequin party dress or a suit with holiday vibes


Courtesy of Dress The Population.

Mimi Dress

Don’t shy away from sequins, folks! If you’re a little unsure about going for a bold color, opt for a sequin dress in a more neutral tone.


Dress Code: Business Formal


The MEGA Agency.

The dress code suggestion at many daytime semi-formal events (particularly work lunches and conferences) is business formal—which calls for a tailored dress, pantsuit or a formal-ish suiting option. The idea is to wear something business-appropriate that also feels dressed-up.

Foolproof Outfit: A chic pantsuit or formal blazer and pants combo


Courtesy of Standards & Practices.

Rowan Plaid Wide Leg Pants + Dorothy Oversized Plaid Boyfriend Blazer

You want this business look to be a bit dressed up, so opt for a pair of formal suit pants in a simple color—like gray, black or cream. Style a matching blazer over a fun blouse for an added pop.


Dress Code: Business Casual


The MEGA Agency.

Most corporate offices have a dress code that calls for business casual. Pants and a blazer or a pencil skirt and a fun blouse are often the way to go. Try to avoid wearing jeans—though on some occasions dark jeans might work—and definitely no sneakers.

Foolproof Outfit: Dark trousers and a blazer or skirt and a fun blouse


Courtesy of Eloquii.

Leather Midi Skirt + Layering Turtleneck

You really can’t go wrong with a trendy midi skirt—especially for more business casual outfits. When paired with a fitted black turtleneck, an edgier skirt feels instantly more dressed up.


Dress Code: Casual Dressy


The MEGA Agency.

This dress code calls for a slightly dressier version of your most casual look. Dress up your go-to pair of pants with a fun pair of ankle boots, add heels to elevate flared jeans or pair a jumpsuit with a collared shirt. Alternatively, dress up your favorite pair of jeans with a blazer and you’ll be good to go.

Foolproof Outfit: Black pants, a blouse and ankle boots or jeans and a blazer


Courtesy of Susana Monaco.

High Waist Wide Leg Pants

The casual dressy dress code makes it so easy to work in pieces already in your closet. Opt for a pair of simple black trousers, then add finishing touches that make it a bit more formal.


Dress Code: Casual


The MEGA Agency.

Anything goes in this case, including jeans and sneakers and a casual dress code usually means you’ll be uncomfortable in anything too dressy. Think of the casual dress code as what you’d wear to spend all day shopping or hanging out with your friends—nothing too serious.

Foolproof Outfit: Jeans, a cute top and sneakers, of course!


Courtesy of Reformation.

Millie Top

I love having a cute blouse as an option for any season that you can pair with your favorite jeans. Or, style it with a cute midi skirt if you don’t want to go too casual.

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A version of this article was originally published in 2014.